"What is the
noise supposed to be that precedes the two-o'-clock Television
News? It sounds like a nightmare in a railway train!" -
Letter to Radio Times, 10th November 1960.
It starts with a slow, ominous lurch into life almost identical to that which begins the current (and superb) Broadcast album. The title - "Outside" - is as simple and perfect as could be imagined, in its anticipation, escape and excitement. Astonishingly, it is now 41 years old, the kind of fact that completely shakes up the supposed linear progression of Time. It is one of the early creations of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, one of the greatest and most surprising developments ever to emerge from the centre of Britain's Official Culture Industry. Its creator, Desmond Briscoe, may have been an obnoxious character who could never be shut up once he started boasting how he had taught Princess Margaret to ride a horse, but somehow that doesn't seem to matter. You're hooked, convulsed, you can't stop yourself.
There follows a succession of little masterpieces, every one of which chills the bone. Phil Young's "Science and Industry", "The Artist Speaks" and "The Splendour That Was Rome", such enticing promises for what lay ahead. Maddalena Fagandini's 1960 Interval Signal, the piece most likely to have inspired the letter quoted above, an extraordinarily addictive rhythmic incantation from an era of excitement and technological mystique surrounding broadcasting (this stuff sounded every bit as "alien" and "other" in Macmillan's Britain as the best rock'n'roll, and the ignorance of this fact is one of the many malign influences of Rockism). Briscoe's "Phra the Phoenician" and "Stick Up", Fagandini's "Ideal Home Exhibition" (Telstar futurism at its absolute peak) and "The Chem Lab Mystery" ... and then there's her finest achievement, "Time Beat", issued on a 7" single as the Workshop's first commercial release in 1962 (though under the cringemaking pseudonym Ray Cathode, and with the composer's credit going to "BBC Radiophonics", hence the obscurity for many years of its creator). Combining a metronomic rhythm with an extraordinarily beautiful Spanish violin sound, to make it resemble an electronic fiesta, "Time Beat" is, for me right here, right now, one of the greatest singles ever recorded. The B-side to that release - Fagandini's "Waltz in Orbit" - is even stranger. Space Age Bachelor Pad Music is too much of a mid-90s cliche to invoke now, but that's exactly what it is, the highest achievement (alongside "Telstar" itself) of the first generation of English space music. You can't believe these recordings are nearly 40 years old. All conventional estimations of the progression of Time are instantly subverted.
But the Workshop's resident genius, Delia Derbyshire, had only just arrived. One of her earliest contributions - "Time On Our Hands" - is a superb subversion of a phrase which would normally evoke (especially in the context of 1962) new-found affluence, spare time and leisure, now rendered alienated, distant and isolated. "Arabic Science and Industry" is equally startling, but her finest early gambit was "Know Your Car", a devastatingly effective appropriation of the 1930s hit "Get Out And Get Under". The sound effects in the background are still dazzling, still a superb display of the art of studio recording. I am instantly transplanted back to Westminster reference library, BBC Radio's Study Session, 1963.
Pretty soon, we leave the early Radiophonic Workshop period - a succession of pieces whose quietly chilling quality would never be equalled - and move on to the second recognisable period of Radiophonic music before the mass availability of synthesisers in the early 70s began the long and painful blandout of their sound - the 1964-71 era of signature pieces. The oft-underrated John Baker arrived with two striking, sharp pieces - "Choice" and "Hardluck Hall" - but it is Derbyshire's genius that continues to stand out. Her "Talk Out" is incredible, based almost entirely on studio-recorded voices around 26 seconds of electronic delicacy, "Science and Health" is a succession of tumbling chords, descending with an elegance beyond almost anyone else, and "A New View of Politics" is devastatingly effective (and perfect for the optimism of early BBC2, for whom the piece was written). Less widely-acknowledged figures like David Cain, Keith Salmon and Brian Hodgson made significant contributions, the latter creating some of the most atmospheric incidental music ever heard on Doctor Who (the programme which ultimately came to trap the Workshop in the mass public imagination, as their name became so widely associated with it, at the expense of any widespread consciousness of their other work).
But it was the optimism of the Harold Wilson Labour government, as the 60s continued, which enabled the short, bright, optimistic and brilliant signature pieces of John Baker to come into their own. He wasn't the most talented figure at the Workshop in the 60s, but his work does seem to best embody the optimism and desire to go forward of the time. The very titles - "Fresh Start", "New Worlds", "Festival Time", "The Chase" - say it all, although his work could also be slow, bitterly cold and predatory, as with "P.I.G.S." Baker's "Radio Nottingham" is the best radio station signature piece ever (David Cain's "Radio Sheffield" is the second best), and his version of "Boys and Girls" is in fact far superior to the more famous version used over the opening sequence of the BBC schools programme Near and Far, although I do have a vague memory of its being used over the closing credits to that series. David Cain's "Autumn and Winter" also stands out from this period, and Baker's "Factors" is astonishingly modern in its rhythmic compulsion and drive (the "riff" is identical to that which propels Asian Dub Foundation's "Naxalite"). Nevertheless, the superiority of Delia Derbyshire's work to anything else from the Workshop always stands out - three of her 1969 signature pieces, "Environmental Studies", "Chronicle" and "Great Zoos of the World" display all her astonishing tricks with sound, the last-named including the most accurate set of animal noises ever created electronically. Her "Ziwzeh Ziwzeh Oooh Oooh Oooh", based around a resplicing of "Science and Health", is her most terrifying moment, tumbling into a nightmare, the sound of childhood at its most chilling. Pram started here. The Workshop saw out the 1960s as an astonishing hive of creativity.
A major change and, ultimately, a serious decline was around the corner, though. Derbyshire had always felt held back by the demands of the Workshop, how everything had to be designed for some specific promotional use, and mixing as she did with people as diverse as Peter Zivonieff, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Yoko Ono, Pink Floyd and Brian Jones, she found herself increasingly disillusioned with her surroundings. Her departure in 1971 (she would later be, among other things, a pipeline radio operator for British Gas in the mid-70s) coincided unfortunately with the mass availability of analog synthesisers, which removed the need for the sounds to be created in the studio, with tape loops running the length of corridors. This enabled the ever-increasing use of off-the-shelf effects, which would recur in piece after piece, and make individual works sound much less inspirational and individual. Coming to the fore in the 70s were Dudley Simpson (perhaps more closely associated with Doctor Who than any other RW composer), Paddy Kingsland (clearly their most talented composer of the era), Peter Howell, Dick Mills, Malcolm Clarke and Roger Limb. While Limb's "Swirley", well-remembered as the theme to BBC Engineering Announcements, is perhaps the most overrated single piece in the RW canon, some fine work was done between 1972 and 1979. Peter Howell's "Greenwich Chorus" is possibly the best individual piece of the analog synth era, a brilliant English approximation of the same dichotomy (an electronic reanimation of ancient, inscrutable London, with the people of centuries ago surviving as digital spirits) that Nick Currie asserts at http://www.demon.co.uk/momus/thought110600.html. Howell's "The Secret War" and Mills's "Thomas the Rhymer" are pretty good, and a number of Paddy Kingsland pieces are superb, especially the striking "Reg", and "A Whisper From Space", one of the very few analog-era pieces to quietly and effectively send chills down the spine in the way the best early pieces did. Kingsland's masterpiece, however, was his soundtrack for "The Changes" in 1975 (http://www.bilderberg.org/changes.htm), arguably the greatest, and certainly the most ambitious and stimulating, children's television drama ever made in Britain. In its evocation of an England returned to the days before the Industrial Revolution, a world turned upside down, where machines are considered "evil", where the weather turns from perfect midsummer to snow overnight, and where Arthurian legend has been invoked to change everything, it could not work better. It makes the English countryside seem like the strangest and most alien place in the world (which, in "The Changes", it is) and with its electronic spirits, it evokes definitively and perfectly all the concepts in the Momus thought mentioned above. It works absolutely perfectly and flawlessly, and fits wonderfully with Peter Dickinson's epic vision.
If only it all lived up to that standard. When you dig further into the Workshop's music of this period, you have to contend with Limb's hideous, literally unlistenable "Quirky" (which lives up to its title in the most nightmarish way imaginable), Clarke's dismal "Contact", and Howell's horribly bland "Colour Rinse". You're also faced with Howell's album "Through a Glass Darkly" (from which "Colour Rinse" comes), an aspirational Mike Oldfield album about five years too late which now has that inexorably bland, syrupy feel that only the most washed-up tail-end-of-prog concept albums have. By the late 1970s, the decline was becoming unstoppable, and it would only worsen in the decade ahead.
The analog synth era provides nostalgic memories for many, and Plone (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/plone.htm) bear its influence far, far more than they do the 1958-64 or 1964-71 "eras". But for me it's mostly a sad comedown from what had been achieved previously, typified by the replacement, in the late 70s, of Delia Derbyshire's magnificent realisation of the Doctor Who theme (revised in 1969, as the programme went into colour, from its original incarnation in the black-and-white era) with a vastly inferior version by Peter Howell. This also underlined the Workshop's increasing problem as synthesisers became more and more common in pop music - how could their music possibly retain the "otherness" it had had up to about 1972? It's become a terrible cliche to say this, but the original Dr Who theme sounded like it was coming, literally, from another planet when it was first heard in late 1963, as Gerry and the Pacemakers and Freddie and the Dreamers infested the charts. Howell's version sounded indistinguishable from Cerrone's "Super Nature" or Gary Numan / Tubeway Army's "Are 'Friends' Electric?", both hits around the time it was recorded, and inferior to both, in my opinion, in its use of much the same electronics. As synthesisers became much cheaper in the early 80s, this problem increased - by 1982, synthpop ruled the charts to such an extent that a reissue of Kraftwerk's "The Model" / "Computer Love", far superior to most of the records at that time "influenced" by it in some way, could reach Number One. And, sure enough, this further cheapening of synthesisers, and their ever greater ubiquity in pop music as a whole, impacted itself on the Workshop as they declined further and further during the 80s, becoming most widely associated with Elizabeth Parker's synthesised pan pipes. Some good work was done (Roger Limb's theme to the 1987 BBC children's drama "Aliens in the Family" is brilliant, and uncharacteristically sombre for Limb, and his score for that series is probably the last good music ever to come from the Workshop) but mostly it was mediocre background / incidental music for various schools TV and radio programmes, and similar work. While this stuff has nostalgic significance for me, and it was the first Radiophonic music I heard, it clearly doesn't stand up in retrospect.
In 1989 the BBC very nearly abolished the Radiophonic Workshop altogether, and it was saved principally because the final series of Doctor Who had been commissioned; it was as though the Workshop's general public association with that programme had imploded back on it in the most hideous way. The BBC could seemingly not imagine DW continuing without the RW (although I've seen episodes of the series from 1970 which have orchestral music conducted by Carey Blyton, and they somehow seem incomplete without any Radiophonic contributions) so it was the brief reprieve of Dr Who which, in turn, caused the reprieve of the Workshop. The 1989 series of Dr Who proved to be the last ever, and the Radiophonic Workshop struggled on, as a low-profile operation ultimately reduced to Elizabeth Parker, Roger Limb and the technical expert John Hunt, for another seven years.
Having said all that, the Workshop deserved better than to become yet another casualty of John Birt's destructive, sub-Thatcherite, obsessively bureaucratic near-destruction of the BBC. The end of the Radiophonic Workshop, in December 1996, was brought about by Birt's ludicrous "Producer Choice" scheme, which established an internal market within the BBC where producers would, in Mark Cola's words, "shop around both in and outside the BBC for the best price." As the Workshop now had to "cost" all work at hourly rates, it had to cheapen its techniques, and cut corners, to arrive at the right price, or else producers would go elsewhere for their sound. The effects of this meant that the Workshop was renamed "Radiophonics" (the word "Workshop" doubtless deemed not modern enough - Birtism seemed to combine the worst aspects of both Thatcherism and Blairism) and 38 years after its creation in 1958, it was finally merged with (i.e. taken over by) Radio Production Resources at the end of 1996; the name "BBC Radiophonic Workshop" is still used by John Hunt, but its work is almost entirely in remastering old recordings. While its glory years were clearly long past, it deserved a more dignified and less painful departure than that.
Nevertheless ... eternal, untouchable, indescribably important, a range of moods and feelings that seems unending - that is the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 1958-1971 and (to a lesser extent) 1972-1979. It's a legacy unacknowledged by the BBC itself (which refuses to reissue any RW material other than that used for Doctor Who) and viewed with a certain snobbism by certain curators of electronic music, simply because of its being thrust into the background of millions of British lives. But it is there, and the importance and influence of this music has rarely been equalled.
Robin Carmody, 11th July / 16th October 2000
Thanks to Mark Cola, Darren Giddings and Martin Fenton.
"The Fourth Dimension" by Paddy Kingsland (1973) / "BBC Radiophonic Music" by Delia Derbyshire, John Baker and David Cain (1971)
I recently received copies of the above two LPs (the first albums of Radiophonic music released commercially by the BBC, though there had been single releases in the 60s) and have naturally added them to the expanding universe of Radiophonic history on Elidor (it's almost becoming a kind of microsite ...).
Some of the sonics on The Fourth Dimension are fairly conventionally of-the-time; the standard idea of the prog wonderboy amid a bank of analog synths, and certainly Kingsland's theme to the Radio 1 series "Scene and Heard" is fairly conventional trendiness circa 1970, and not great. "Just Love", written for BBC TV, could almost be Rick Wakeman and therefore is Not A Good Thing. "Vespucci", not a signature piece, sees Kingsland getting a little indulgent when left entirely to his own devices; it goes on at least a minute too long, but of course a track timed at 3'20" is mercifully short by the standards of certain bands very prominent in 1973, and it could pretty much fit into his extraordinary soundtrack for The Changes, and therefore has at least something going for it. But you feel it would be more resonant and moving if written to order; there's something emptily early 70s about it, as though it's waiting for a purpose to make it seem special, and that purpose cannot be found.
Kingsland had a disshevelled, thoughtful appearance akin to, in Darren Giddings's phrase, any number of 70s worthy chunky pullover types. For lazy old punkies, it might, unbelievably, still be easy to denounce him as a kind of electronic hippy (I sort-of think of him as such myself, but use the phrase as a compliment). But the Mike Oldfield comparison, while sonically not inaccurate (The Changes soundtrack is pretty much what Hergest Ridge would sound like if it wasn't shit), is ultimately a red herring; the emotional effect in some of Kingsland's melody lines and chord changes is closer to the contemporary songs of Richard Thompson, John Martyn, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake than it is to the cheesy mainstream proggery of Tubular Bells. Indeed what amazes me about much of this music is how folky it is; just as folk-rock implied a rejection of the Wilsonian idea of pop (modernity-at-all-costs), Kingsland's music took the RW as far from the white heat of technology as "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" is from "We Can Work It Out". Kingsland was a firm believer in the use of non-synthesised instrumental sound along with electronic and treated sound, breaking away from previous Workshop orthodoxy, and guitars propel many of the tracks here, but they never overpower the synths as happened on some of the more plodding "electronic" LPs to emerge from other sources at this time. "Tamariu", written for BBC TV, the title track "Fourth Dimension", written for Radio 4, and "Colour Radio", written for BBC Radio Leeds, are the soundtrack for two slow dances and a waltz to be performed in the futurist-medieval costumes seen on the cover of the Fotheringay album. "Take Another Look" (written for a quiet, reflective BBC TV series full of timelapse photography - shots of speeded-up clouds and slow-motion shots of sugarcubes falling into a cup of tea, etc., and oh how it sounds it) is essentially The Pentangle's "Light Flight" rewritten for analog synth; pretty much exactly the same song structure and melody line, it is an amazing widening of the range of emotions and feelings to be found in electronic music, and also anticipates Stereolab's slower-paced and more mournfully romantic moments ("Monstre Sacre" comes to mind).
Kingsland's theme to Radio 4's "Kaleidoscope" is pretty mundane bleepery, but "The Space Between", written for Radio 3, is quite perfect in its melancholia, a first cousin of The Changes soundtrack, gazing out over some beautiful, but strangely altered and quiet and ancient, English landscape. It is also the sound pastiched on the last 30 seconds or so of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's "Patio Song" (quite appropriate, really, because that single - deliberate museum-piece though it was, and indeed it only worked because it had no pretensions to be anything else - was two pastiches in one; the Incredible String Band at their most consciously quaint followed by the analog synthery of much the same era). Next to it, the non-purpose-written "Flashback" - conventional early 70s instrumental fare - seems like only a minor abberation. But ruralist reflection wasn't the only mood Kingsland could master; "Reg", written for the BBC African Service, is a drum-and-synth classic (the drum track is, however, identical to that used on the opening theme to The Changes, which shows how much off-the-shelf repetition of particular sounds was coming to influence the RW by this time) while "One-Eighty-One", written for Radio 4, is awesome, frenetic, biting analog rock, which comes close to out-freakbeating Pierre Henry and Michel Colombier, and anticipates the recent work of Add N To (X).
But however good The Fourth Dimension is, and at least half of it is at least as good as anything else from the analog synth (post-1971) era of the Workshop, you always have the sense and smell and feel of the time in which it was recorded while you're playing it, and it never comes close to challenging The Changes soundtrack as Kingsland's finest achivement. BBC Radiophonic Music anthologises the work of Derbyshire, Baker and Cain (oh for a parallel universe where those names were as well-known and had sold as many records as, oooh, Emerson, Lake and Palmer) in the last few years before the arrival of the analog synth, and there's nothing of-its-time about it at all; rather, it defies canonisation and conventional ideas of how music "sounded" at any given time.
While playing it, I tend naturally to concentrate on the tracks I haven't heard previously and which are obviously therefore newer and more exciting to me, but it works and makes sense as an entity; the two radio station signature pieces "Radio Sheffield" and "Radio Nottingham" make a perfect brave-new-world introduction to the album to entice listeners in 1971 who were still, for the moment, holding on to the Wilsonian idea of electronic sound equalling progressivism, before it can show its true range and breadth further in (BBC local radio itself signified a brave new dawn for the Corporation in the late 60s and early 70s, breaking the grip of the formal post-war institutionalism of the old regional Home Services). At the risk of repeating myself, though, I'll comment here only on the pieces not mentioned somewhere above (or in my comment on John Baker's work from late last year, which can be read at http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/oldthoughts3.htm), and as ever it's Delia Derbyshire's genius that stands out. "Mattachin" is a fine reworking / extension of the structure of her "Talk Out", but the real masterpiece is "Pot Au Feu". This is three minutes and nineteen seconds of paranoia, virtually a rave track circa 1991 in its structure; a stattering, pounding teleprinter-paced bassline worthy of Timbaland as the tension builds, then a moment of chaos and crisis, an alarm-bell of a hook recalling the "panic / excitement" lines so prevalent in early 90s hardcore (The Prodigy's "Charly", Quadrophonia's "Quadrophonia"). The day someone loops "Pot Au Feu" (and I wouldn't be surprised if some kid in one of London's anonymous satellite towns with an older relative's collection of stereo test records and suchlike actually did back in '91 or so ...), they'll have a Number One hit waiting.
Baker's theme for "Tomorrow's World" is fine popular futurism of its time though nothing special, but Delia's "Blue Veils and Golden Sands" is, as one might expect, phenomenally atmospheric; such is its surround-sound quality that it totally transcends the narrow constraints of simply coming from my speakers, instead filling the room, my consciousness, the air itself. And yet virtually nothing happens, but with Delia's music nothing needs to happen; the fullness and totality of it all render any desire for novelty or thrill or quick fix an utterly absurd and unnecessary concept.
Other pieces have different defining qualities. Cain's "Artbeat" simply defines and expresses a time when young people thought it was cool to be thoughtful and creative, a world away from today's empty, rampant, all-pervasive hedonism. Baker's "Christmas Commercial", meanwhile, comes pretty close to the essence of pop music itself (irreverence, irreligiousity, utter disrespect for all that it is imposed that we should bow down to) with a harsh fucking-over of O Come All Ye Faithful, every note of the melody rendered into the sound of a shop till, as an acknowledgement (along with the piece's title itself) that the endlessly rattled-on-about "true meaning of Christmas" has long been usurped, and obviously loving and revelling in every moment of it. While a complete knock-off by the RW's standards, it's the greatest pop record the Workshop ever gave us (in the same way that, say, "All Around My Hat" is better pop than anything on Liege and Lief); I'm shocked and startled every time I hear it, that apart from their innovations in other senses, the RW also had this much healthy disrespect for all that was revered in Old Britain's Official Culture (a key bastion of which, of course, kept them going; oh, the joys of pop's dependence on institutionalism while at the same time joyously pissing on everything it stood for).
Delia Derbyshire's "The Delian Mode" pretty much defies description and is all the better for it; you don't want to have to resort to mere words to describe such a perfect sound, utterly deserving the self-definitive title Delia so knowingly gave it. "Structures", meanwhile, shows how menacing and brilliant a composer John Baker could be when not making his fast-paced optimistic pieces; psychologically, hearing it feels like being coldly questioned and harshly interrogated inside your brain.
Delia's "Towards Tomorrow" (presumably written for a 1968 BBC TV series of this title) is, like her earlier "Time On Our Hands", a perfect subversion of a classic brave-new-world dynamism phrase. The "tomorrow" I imagine here is the antithesis of that which the BBC in the 60s made much play of promoting to its audience; instead, it could easily be some kind of dystopia, a state of decay or de-evolution. With "Door To Door", meanwhile, Delia shows that she could also do the upbeat promotional thing well; the rings and knocks are worked perfectly into the perfect 60s advertising campaign soundtrack. David Cain's epic "War of the Worlds" has all the menace its title deserves, and his short "Crossbeat" has all the thrill of a ride across London by monorail in 1968 (the RW's music is at least as much about period fantasies as the mundane period truths), before Delia's "Air", an ice-cold, nocturnal rewrite of "Air on a G-String", the stuff of a seven-year-old child's most unforgettable nightmares and thus even more obviously and clearly proto-Pram than "Ziwzeh Ziwzeh Oooh Oooh Oooh", completes the album. And I'm gasping at what I've just heard.
It can never be said too many times, though I think I've come close. The work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop between 1958 and 1971, and much of its work between 1972 and 1979, is eternal.
Robin Carmody, 26th March 2001
"The Radiophonic Workshop" (1975) / "BBC Radiophonic Workshop - 21" (1979)
This will surely be the final extension to this piece, given that I now have all four of the worthwhile official RW releases, plus the fan-circulating The Sounds of Science and Industry compilation CD (apart from the Doctor Who CDs which I've only just ordered; the only Radiophonic music currently officially available, these merit their own piece and will get one). I have a quite romantic attitude to the Workshop in that I don't want to hear any more of their creative wilderness years than I already have; my collection more or less stops at 1979, and I have no desire to expand it; the thought of actually hearing Peter Howell's Through A Glass Darkly in its entirety is not one I feel I can stomach.
I'd previously underrated Malcolm Clarke's contribution to the Workshop based on his mediocre tracks on The Sounds of Science and Industry, but hearing The Radiophonic Workshop makes me realise what a talent he was. He is, indisputably, the star of this show, particularly because Paddy Kingsland's two contributions are of little interest by his high standards of the time - "The Panel Beaters" and "The World of Science" are both likeably upbeat children's TV-type themes, but neither go anywhere near the places he took us on The Fourth Dimension, though the sweetly folkish "World of Science" threatens to. And it should be a sign of the low regard in which I hold Roger Limb that, while I like his two tracks here - "Geraldine" and "Kitten's Lullaby" - more than almost anything else I've heard by him, both are ultimately too irritating in their schmaltziness and sentimentality for me to really love them. John Baker, by this point well past his creative peak, reworks his old rhythmic undertows to less creative effect on the ultimately forgettable "Brio".
That's the stuff not really worth saving. What is cherishable is so indeed, a snapshot of the Workshop shortly before its creative decline in the synth era really started to kick in, and also notable for its diversity (long musique concrete pieces sequeing into brief sound effects and then into jaunty themes). The opener, Clarke's "La Grande Piece de la Foire de la Rue Delaware", is infinitely refreshing in its joie de vivre and bounciness; this is the cuddly, child-friendly incarnation of the Workshop at its best (it has all the squelchy production that Plone love, but none of their occasional schmaltziness). "Bath Time", meanwhile, is one of the RW's best uses of the technique of approximating a common sound (in this case, water and soap almost frothing out of the speakers) as the rhythmic basis for a track. It works through its masterful construction; melody line of elegant functionality over rhythm track of peerless contrivance, complete with baby crying. When it fades to rubber duck and water flowing out of the plughole, you're left stunned at Clarke's ability to make the most mundane aspects of life sound magical and wondrous (Boards of Canada learnt a lot here, quite possibly).
"Nenuphar", a collaborative effort between Clarke and Glynis Jones, is one of those quietly unobtrusive minimalist masterpieces that defies description among those like myself trained only in popcrit; suffice it to say I always feel intensely privileged and awestruck to hear it, as though I shouldn't really be trespassing here. Jones's "Veils and Mirrors" and "Schlum Rooli" are similarly not pieces I feel I can adequately describe in words; suffice it to say that this music is far greater than any monolithic corporate institution ever really deserves, but it was lucky to have it, and whatever use it was put to (sadly, it's hard not to imagine the cliched horror / thriller / psychological drama / possibly even, gulp, Doctor Who) would have been a good use. The young girl's call of fear in "Schlum Rooli" is a pinnacle of the Workshop's ability, at its best, to make your hair stand on end, and yet at the same time avoid any of the cliches of the territory. Richard Yeoman-Clark's fine "Waltz Antipathy" also fits into this category; suffice it to say that the "chirpy jingle" side of the Workshop in the mid-70s is very much sidelined on this LP.
Clarke's "Romanescan Rout", meanwhile, has crept up to become one of my favourite RW tracks ever, with its slow build of tension, quietly elevating synth ripples and wonderfully skin-penetrating noises leading up to the elation of a dramatically sped-up conclusion.
The other notable presence on The Radiophonic Workshop is Dick Mills; more skilled on the technical side than in the creation of memorable individual pieces, he was nevertheless the last remaining original RW staff member left by 1975, 17 years into the Workshop's existence, and this endurance is acknowledged by the sentimental inclusion of "Major Bloodnok's Stomach", the brief sound effect he created for The Goon Show back in 1959. By this time he was best known for his work on Doctor Who, and his "Adagio" would have made a fine piece of background on that programme, even if it inevitably pails next to the other pieces of perfectly-executed minimalism on this LP. Far more striking in its off-kilter pop sense, though, is Mills's "Crazy Dazy"; the sounds of summer in open country, that instantly-familiar melody line ("give me your answer, do ...") briefly tinkling on a bicycle bell, then vicious traffic noise and explosions and the idyll totally disrupted, then the tune flowing back in and those outdoor sounds, almost mockingly, returning to fade. All within a minute. As a representation of Britain's desperate nerves and unease at this period over the conflict between its lingering Arcadian sense of itself and the results of the full-scale industrialisation and suburbanisation and "newness" of the 60s, it could hardly be bettered in its brief, startling perversity, and is a sign that the representation within Radiophonic music of the cultural feelings of the world outside at the moment it was recorded can be at least as effective when presented implicitly and humorously (as here) as obviously and spiritually (as on Kingsland's soundtrack for The Changes).
Most of BBC Radiophonic Workshop - 21 I'd already heard on The Sounds of Science and Industry, but not the opening track, Desmond Briscoe's "Quatermass and the Pit". Recorded in the Workshop's inaugural year, 1958, it has an instant menacing effect and striking sense of a new age of musical invention dawning. At the time, this would have been an astonishing opening shot for the Workshop and a perfect introduction for that incredibly memorable TV series; a nation being single-handedly drawn into fear and terror by the organisation it looked on as its cosy, reassuring Auntie, and the RW kickstarting itself into creative life through such means.
There's also Delia's original Doctor Who theme of 1963, but reviewing that now is rather like reviewing, say, "My Generation" on a compilation of The Who; it's not that it's bad, it's just pointless considering its status as a cultural cliche and how much fascinating material there is surrounding it. Likewise Brian Hodgson's original sound effect for the Tardis, now so familiar as to pretty much speak for itself. And then we're onto the comparatively dispensible 70s themes; Kingsland's theme for "The Broken Biscuit Club" on children's TV is bouncy uptempo fluff I'd be happy never to hear again, and Richard Yeoman-Clark's "Mysterioso" from Blake's Seven pales next to much of the similar work on The Radiophonic Workshop and probably owes its reputation to the cult status of that series. Malcolm Clarke's "Hurdy Gurdy" is, however, quite startling in its imposing heaviness, towering neo-medievalism rendered harshly aggressive in its sense of ruling over all it surveys, rather than a charming relic. A similar sense of the enemy's arrival at the gate is conveyed by Kingsland's "Newton", which could alert anyone to the importance of the moment and what they have to defend.
That's all for this page. But the chronicling of the Radiophonic Workshop's achievements on Elidor is far from complete; I've recently bought the two Doctor Who CDs which constitute the only officially-available Radiophonic music in the UK at the moment, and the 1969 White Noise LP An Electric Storm which features a considerable contribution from Delia Derbyshire, and will be reviewing them in time. For the moment some tentative thoughts on the RW's continued influence, and the places people have taken its echoes, are here: http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/rwinfluence.htm.
Robin Carmody, 7th May 2001
http://www.thewire.co.uk/out/0298_1.htm (from The Wire, February 1992, Mark Sinker close to his best)
Not that bad either:
Now sadly devoid of the "Turn On" CD cover:
It's that index ...